Monday, November 23, 2015

Reviews for the Week of November 23, 2015

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. Thank you.

DOMINOES IN TIME by Matthew Warner (2015 Cemetery Dance Publications / 298 pp / eBook / also available as a limited edition hardcover from Thunderstorm Books)

Warner's latest collection features 18 horror and science fiction stories covering a wide range of topics (and time periods). The book is divided into 5 sections, and each one features a genuine gem or two.

After the author's foreword, the first 6 tales fall under the "Ain't it Romantic?" heading, and include 'Picture Perfect,' where a model's life is altered by a slick photographer and his unusual camera, then a father (who is on the brink of divorce) meets his fate at a children's library in 'Muralistic,' while an undertaker deals with the death of his wife in the spooky 'At Death We'll Not Part.' My favorite of this section was 'Springs Eternal,' about a man searching for the Fountain of Youth (but gets a ghastly surprise), then a son helps his father cope with his late wife at a ghostly party in 'Cocktail Party of the Dead.' Capping things off is 'Life Insurance,' where a family recovers from hurricane Katrina in a most unique way.

The book then shifts into "The Joys of Parenthood," an area where the author shines. In 'Cat's Cradle,' a man must deal with a strange feline as well as his newborn son, then in 'Second Wind' a man locates his ex-wife to help birth his son in a nasty post-nuked world, where on top of everything else a "were-virus" has infected the population. A man with "The Peering" develops a disease from eyeing his son in 'With the Eyes of God,' then a step mother sees a premonition on a baby's video monitor in 'Maybe Monitored.' Warner ratchets the suspense up high in 'It's Just Business,' as a father worries about his young son at a playground when a shady looking character arrives. Make sure to read the author's introduction to 'The Three Golden Eggs,' which is a prequel to Jack & the Beanstalk. Fun stuff.

It's "Intermission" time, and along with it comes my favorite story of the lot titled 'And That's When the Bathroom Exploded,' as a worker describes how an airport bathroom blew up on his watch. A wonderfully bizarre tale that's as darkly comic as it is strange.

Three historical tales arise in "Looking Back" starting with 'Backwards Man,' where the old saying "Everything happens for a reason" is played out between a newly homeless man and a Causer of events. In 'Bummers,' a woman sneak-joins the army during the Civil War after her lesbian lover leaves for a man, and in 'Monarch of the Mountains,' two silver miners in the old West encounter a freaky creature in one of the collection's more memorable offerings.

Both stories in "Looking Ahead" are simply fantastic: 'Noah's Temple' takes place in the distant future and looks at religion and science through the eyes of a female pope; one of the better religion-themed horror stories I've read in a while. And finally, 'Die Not in Vain' is a novella about Joe Merrill, an aerophobic man flying to the East Coast to make plans for his Alzheimer-stricken mother. But Joe is having "death trips" and continually sees himself dying. He thinks he's going crazy, as does his wife, and when he learns his mother has been dealing with the same issue, Joe's world becomes even more surreal.

DOMINOES IN TIME showcases Warner's ability to pen authentic paranoia from many different angles (his 2006 novel EYES EVERYWHERE will be of interest to those interested in the subject) and his blending of the macabre with some finely placed humor makes this collection sing. At times reminiscent of classic Twilight Zone episodes, Warner's stories are engaging and more often than not will take you places you didn't see coming.

-Nick Cato

SLUSH by Glenn Rolfe (2014 Alien Agenda Publishing / 110 pages / trade paperback, eBook, & audiobook)

This 12-pack collection draws inevitable comparisons to the short stories of Stephen King, and hey, that’s fair … it fits, and there certainly are worse writers to be compared to!

Elements of small towns, youthful characters coming of age or discovering dark truths, cultural references (and nods to King himself, always fun!), and simple home-style horrors lend them a simple but encompassing appeal.

'Ballad of the Best-Selling Author' gives voice to the eternal frustration many of us feel when something we don’t deem worthy becomes a popular or even mainstream phenom; in this one, the culprit is the zombie craze, as a true horror fan fights a lonely uphill battle to try and explain why famous hotshots don’t deserve the attention.

I particularly admired (I can’t say ‘liked,’ because it gave me SUCH uncomfy chills) the short but viciously effective 'I’m In Here”'… 'Jackie Boy' is a nicely nasty piece of work for sure, and 'Henry' will squick anybody right the heck out.

Some of the stories have been published before, others make their debut in these pages, and each of them stands strong. My biggest complaint with the book was that I could have done with another dozen more stories. So, Mr. Rolfe, hop to it!

-Christine Morgan


A PENNY SAVED by Sephera Giron (to be released 12/1/15 by Samhain Publishing / 107 pp / eBook)

Cora is an office worker, confined to her cubicle and dealing with her low place on the totem pole as she sees others around her advance. An avid penny collector, she finds a particularly shiny one in the street and is instantly transported to another dimension. She learns the penny is owned by a demon, and it doesn't take long for her life to change.

First her superior asks her to dinner, and she learns they both share the same unusual sexual interests. She willingly becomes his sex slave, and before long rises to the top of her company. Her co-workers stop talking to her, but she's not bothered as the money and promotions keep coming.

Despite being sexually abused by her two bosses, Cora eventually becomes the demon's right hand man, as well as a slave of an otherwordly kind.

Giron's sexually-charged novella is her take on the "deal with the devil" subgenre, this time employing underground goth culture and a heavy dose of fantasy-laced underworld mayhem to give things a fresh feel. A couple of scenes of Cora being transported to hell and back are quite creepy, and fans of kinky sex should be warned this makes 50 SHADES OF GREY look like a weak Sunday school lesson.

Enter at your own risk!

-Nick Cato

ROCK AND ROLL REFORM SCHOOL ZOMBIES by Bryan Smith (2010 Deadite Press / 124 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Ahhh, the 80s … when the various satanic panics about rock-and-roll and other teen pastimes really hit their stride. D&D for the nerdy kids, punk and metal for the cool ones. Parents whose own parents probably flipped out about the Beatles were all set to do anything to re-educate and de-metal their wild child.

The focus of this fun homage to that era is at a special school-slash-treatment-center designed to ‘cure’ teenagers. Of course, such programs are all too often not what they seem. At their best, it’s brainwashing in an attempt to make good little drones. At their worst, it’s rampant abuse of countless kinds.

The Southern Illinois Music Reeducation Center is not one of the good ones. Teachers and guards get away with anything short of murder under the auspices of a sadistic headmistress, and SHE, well, she gets away with more.

Until, that is the night a weird meteor lights the sky, and certain secret shallow graves disgorge their rotting occupants. The students and faculty, as well as a couple of guys on a mission to rescue one’s girlfriend, soon find themselves up to their necks in hungry flesh-chomping zombies.

A cheesy popcorn horror-comedy in book form, it’s pretty much everything you’d expect in all the right ways.

-Christine Morgan

DEAD RINGERS by Christopher Golden (2015 St. Martin's Press / 320 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, eBook, & audiobook)

Nick and his ex-wife Tess are doing their best to raise daughter Maddie together. Nick is now with a younger girlfriend and is considering moving to England with her, which would put a strain on his already shaky relationship with his ex. Tess spots Nick in Boston one day and he snubs her, but she later finds out he was actually in New Hampshire at the same time.

Tess' friend Lili helps her look into things, and in the process discovers she has a doppleganger of her own.

It turns out Nick, Tess, Lili, and a couple of their aquaintainces have become targets of malevolent spirits who had been trapped in a mirror-filled spiritualist contraption called a psychomantuem. The spirits have managed to latch onto our protagonists and become flesh and blood versions with no physical imperfections, and the more they become human, the more Nick and co. begin to...fade away.

Golden gets major kudos here for taking a couple of tired tropes (demons, dopplegangers, ghosts) and giving them a fresh spin. For the first section of the novel I was expecting some kind of scifi/clone story, but was happy to see things come from an occult angle, which adds to the novel's relentless sense of dread. A side story dealing with a struggling alcoholic held captive in his basement adds depth to an already intense tale.

DEAD RINGERS is a wicked good time, complete with a horrifying conclusion reminiscent of the 1975 cult classic THE DEVIL'S RAIN. Check it out.

-Nick Cato


Sunday, November 8, 2015

Reviews for the Week of November 9, 2015

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. Thank you.

THE BOX JUMPER by Lisa Mannetti (2015 Smart Rhino Publications / 142 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Mannetti's novella is told by one of Houdini's former assistants (or "Box Jumpers"), Leonna Derwatt, and the story focuses more on Houdini's attempts to foil the con artist psychics and spiritualists of his day than it does his magic. But fans of the legendary magician need not worry: Mannetti's storytelling here, through the eyes of the aged Leonna, turns this slab of historical fiction into a wicked good time, with sections as creepy as they're surreal.

The author's attention to detail, especially during a seance scene, makes this tale shine, and as we see the reasons Leonna falls in love with (the married) Houdini, we too become more fascinated with him. When Leonna manages to slip a couple of items into Houdini's coffin, we begin to learn more about her and the mystery unravels until the last page.

From Leonna's earliest memories to her final glorified visions of Houdini, THE BOX JUMPER keeps us inside the mind of someone who was truly obsessed, and this dark, demented love story is written with razor sharp precision and an eye for detail seldom seen in horror fiction.

-Nick Cato

SICK PACK by M.P. Johnson (2015 BizarroPulp Press / 101 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

The life of a world-famous romance cover model is far from easy. Just ask Fabulo. Or, better yet, ask Fabulo’s abs. Go ahead, ask them, because in this gloriously outrageous bizarro romp, Fabulo’s abs take on lives of their own.

No, really, they do. As in, his beautifully toned and sculpted ab muscles are tired of the endless regime of crunches, of exercise and discipline, of being shown off glistening and shirtless. When the ab-obsessed Glub Gut shows up to free them, Fabulo’s abs gleefully seize the opportunity to escape and go their six separate ways.

If that sounds all a little too weird for you, then you’d be better off reading something else … it only gets weirder from there. Fabulo finds that, without his abs to restrain it, his stomach becomes a ravening beast with a monstrous hunger, and it will leap right out through the gap where his abs used to be to consume donuts or anything else it can reach.

Besides, without his spectacular abs, Fabulo’s whole career is in danger. He has to get them back! But how to track down runaway ab muscles in a city secretly overrun with rogue body parts? That’s how Fabulo meets Skidrina, a specialist bounty hunter.

Meanwhile, however, each of his abs are off having their own adventures … discovering their true callings, getting in danger, falling in love. It’s like the strangest fairy tale ever, a fairy tale not only with talking animals but animate severed heads, robot hands, booger torture, toilet faces, drugs, sex, violence, and revenge.

So far, everything I’ve read by M.P. Johnson has been sheer wonderful bonzo crazy win, and SICK PACK is yet another mind-melting delight. He’s definitely a fierce force to be reckoned with and I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next!

-Christine Morgan

RITUALISTIC HUMAN SACRIFICE by C.V. Hunt (2015 Grindhouse Press / 200 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Architect Nick Graves is planning to divorce his wife Eve. But right before he does she drops a bomb on him: despite both of them claiming they never wanted kids, she confesses she's pregnant, and that she did so intentionally. Pissed beyond belief, Nick decides to buy an isolated house to get even--to make a major life decision without her permission, and she goes along with it.

Nick is able to work from home, and in their new small town with no schools, Eve is forced to quit her teaching job. While Nick is having fun "getting even" with his wife, a visit to the local doctor puts both of them on a path that builds to a genuinely disturbing finale.

Have you ever wonderred what a Bentley Little novel would be like if Little lost his conscience? Look no further. Hunt's latest novel is a brutal nightmare of sexual violence, small town terror, and marital warfare that might test the limits of even the most jaded genre fans. You may never look at a coat hanger--or a small town doctor--the same way again.

A quick, sick, nasty offering from the always entertaining C.V. Hunt.

-Nick Cato

18 WHEELS OF HORROR edited by Eric Miller (2015 Big Time Books / 258 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I was a kid in the era of trucker and road movies … Convoy, Cannonball Run … I remember Burt Reynolds and his ‘stache, BJ and his Bear … I remember wishing we could have a CB radio and be all cool … I remember making wild air-honk gestures at passing big-rigs on long road trips, and the glee with which we’d greet each successful blast.

The cover alone is everything it should be, doing what Maximum Overdrive aimed for (and missed by a mile). Gorgeous work, says exactly what it needs to, lets you know exactly what you’re in for. And the stories inside do a great job holding up their end of the bargain.

The book opens with Ray Garton’s taunting, spooky, vengeful “A Dark Road.” If Garton’s ever written a dud, I’ve yet to find it.

Other of my personal faves and stand-outs include:

R.B. Payne’s “Big Water,” in which a weird secret delivery gets weirder and more secret.

“Pursuit,” by Hal Bodner, a deep-skin-crawly piece of paranoia.

The reality-bending sly fun of Tim Chizmar’s “Cargo.”

“Siren,” by Eric Miller, updating an ancient seafaring myth for the land-bound highways.

Meghan Arcuri’s craving-inducing, nicely satisfying “Beyond the Best Seasoning.”

And last but not least, the closing story, the tense and gruesome “Roadkill” by Jeff Seeman, finishing things off with a nice gory splat.

This anthology took me right back. And for those who weren’t around in that era, it’ll take you right there too. Truck stops and CB lingo, the endless rumble of engines and wheels, the perceived romance and wearying lonely truths of the open road, the aspect of unique Americana, it’s all here.

-Christine Morgan

SLASHER CAMP FOR NERD DORKS by Christoph Paul (2015 Eraserhead Press /  / trade paperback)

Jason "Voorheesberg" is brought to a less than stellar slasher camp by his mother where he meets a host of low level slashers, and while some warm up to him, Jason eventually discovers he's on his own, especially when he falls for a girl who was sent to kill them all.

Adding difficulty to things is Jason's fear of slashing. Despite his size and strength, he can't bring himself to kill anyone. But things need to change when the camp is taken over by new, more violent counselors who place the campers in a do-or-die competition, where no one can be trusted and young Jason is forced to rely on his own prowess.

In this satirical world, everything is slasher-related. There's a Slasherbowl watched once a year on TV, the camp kids eat in the Slasheteria, and the nerds dream of going to one of the better slasher camps. The cast is hilarious, including one of Jason's new friends who has the ability to control bees (a nod to Argento's PHENOMENA?) and a bunch of "Final Girls" and other slasher film tropes that get turned upside down and inside out.

As silly as it is absurd, SLASHER CAMP FOR NERD DORKS is basically a bizarro re-telling of Jason's origin that should leave slasher film fans grinning from ear to bloody ear.

-Nick Cato

THE COLONY: RECKONING by Michaelbrent Collings (2015 CreateSpace / 474 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

FINALLY!!! Last time I reviewed one of these, I’d somehow gotten it into my head that it was the conclusion, so there wouldn’t be any more agonizing cliffhangers leading to me frothing and foaming and calling the author a booger.

But this time, really and for true, this one’s the last in the series. It’s the end, it’s over, the story gets resolved, questions are answered, things are explained, and …

Frothing. Foaming. Calling the author a booger. Not because of a cliffhanger this time, but because of the horrific heart-wrenching tension, the grim fates, emotional whipsaws and gory buzzing bonesaws, and the sustained anxiety of every parent’s worst fears/nightmares.

The relentless, breathless, break-neck pace of the previous books continues in this one, cramming the entire end of the world / fall of civilization / desperate scramble for survival against ever-increasing throngs of ever-more-monstrous enemies into a mere span of days. It takes a real toll on the characters, who barely have a chance to wrap their minds around the latest trauma before the next one strikes.

In ‘RECKONING,’ the POV has shifted from unlikely protagonist Ken to less-likely protagonist Christopher, whose careless, carefree, wisecracking ways are a fraying, frazzled lifeline as he somehow finds himself trying to keep the group together. They’re once again forced to leave a place of sanctuary, once again suffering terrible losses along the way.

And meanwhile, the hivemind mutant bugzombie menace is getting more powerful than ever. A central foe has coalesced, drawing other chosen doomed hosts toward a final confrontation. As before, I daren’t say too much for fear of giving spoilers, but whew, what a racing wild ride!

-Christine Morgan

FRESH MEAT edited by Leonard Perry (2015 Sinister Grin Press / 177 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

A selection of seven stories, like a deli sampler platter of cold cuts, there’s a little something here to satisfy most tastes … particularly carnivorous ones with a preference for the tender and juicy.

My favorite of the batch is Liam Dunson’s creepy hostage situation in “Find the Arise,” with its titular phrase that burrows into the underside of your mind and clings there like a nasty little pincery thing.

I also particularly enjoyed the ritual-gone-wrong of “The Spoiler” by Matthew Weber, and Neko Lily’s deep-down-twisted “The Kiss of Death.”

Some of the others, I found a bit uneven, but all entertaining and intriguing enough to keep me reading. A nice appetizer course, lean and flavorful.

-Christine Morgan